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Wet House, Wet Drunk

By May 25, 2011No Comments
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What do they do with the hopeless, late-stage alcoholics in Minnesota? They sometimes send them to the St. Anthony Residence, which is one of five “wet-houses” in the Twin Cities area. Wet houses are residential facilities where sobriety and recovery aren’t expected. They use a “harm-reduction” model, which employs a set of strategies meant to reduce the negative effects of alcohol (homelessness, panhandling, jail, etc.). These wet houses also provide shelter, meals, and medical attention for late-stage alcoholics. Often, their modality of thought is, “It’s safer and cheaper to have these guys drinking in a controlled environment than out on the cold Minnesota streets.”  And expense certainly does motivate:  Rather than the state spending inordinate amounts of money on jails, detox, et cetera, they now share the $18,000 per year costs for room and board with Catholic Charities. Residents receive $89 a month for expenses (most of which is spent on alcohol). This is a clear savings for the state. In fact, research done regarding a similar program in Seattle and published in the American Medical Association in 2009, showed striking savings in their public spending:

“The year prior to the opening of the wet house, its 95 participants had cost the government nearly $8.2 million in policing, jail, detox and other medical spending, an average of $4,066 per person per month. But after moving into the wet house, costs were reduced to $1,492 per person monthly after six months, and to $958 after 12 months.”

Still, according to Bill Hockenberger, a recovering alcoholic who manages St. Anthony’s, three to five percent of the residents stop drinking. But I wonder if cost is really a good reason to give up on the 12-step model that has been clearly shown to work.

As I watched these interviews with some of these men today, I was struck by the textbook depiction of their addiction to alcohol. Deluded into thinking that all they’ll ever be is an alcoholic, they’ve literally thrown in the towel and succumbed to the disease. One resident says, “There’s no hope for a scoundrel like me.” Their descriptions of drinking and their corresponding alcoholism mirror the way it’s described in the “Doctor’s Opinion”: “The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one.” Many of these men were homeless and had been in and out of detox facilities and treatment centers–all resulting in relapse. Their “failure” at sobriety ultimately led them to their residency in a wet-house either via county recommendation or by a self-appointed application. Residing in a wet house may mean retaining the last shred of one’s dignity, and it also may represent the end of the line for the hopeless and often-times dying: the “unfortunates” as the Big Book describes them, those “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”

St. Anthony’s takes men who would otherwise be homeless and panhandling and provides them with a safe place to lay their heads…and to drink. Perhaps placing an active, low-bottom drunk in an environment which actively shows them what drinking does will bring about an awareness of the disease. There are certainly those who stay in these wet houses and choose not to drink. In fact, some even get sober and leave, though I believe those to be in the minority. Even though counseling is made available, and drinking is only allowed in one area, I’m just not convinced that sobriety is attainable when recovery is looked upon with such complacency.  Just because the alcoholic is hopeless doesn’t mean we have to become hopeless in our approach.

Related articles:

A safe place to drink, or just giving up? (cnn.com)

You Are Here: The ‘Wet House’ Where Alcoholics Can Keep Drinking (nytimes.com)

At St. Paul ‘wet house,’ liquor can be their life – and death (twincities.com)

‘Wet Houses’: Letting Alcoholics Drink, with Surprising Results (healthland.time.com)


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